Every major newspaper in the country ran a lengthy obit on dancer/choreographer Miriam Nelson, who died on August 12 at the age of 98 and whose seven-decade career, as The New York Times put it, “spanned the golden ages of Broadway, Hollywood and television.”
She worked with Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Jerry Lewis; she helped Shirley MacLaine perform a memorable striptease in “The Apartment” in which MacLaine removed nothing but her necklace; she choreographed the whole cast of “Cat Ballou” in a number; and she coaxed a terrified William Holden to dance with Kim Novak in one of Hollywood’s immortal, sensually riveting scenes, in “Picnic.”
On Broadway, as a dancer, she worked with Van Johnson, Ethel Merman and Danny Kaye, and appeared in six shows, including two by Cole Porter. As a film actress, she appeared in “Double Indemnity,” and “Lady in the Dark.” On TV, she worked on “The Red Skelton Show,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Lucy Show” and “Murder, She Wrote.”
Tall, slender, graceful, outgoing and naturally aristocratic in bearing, she and then-husband Gene Nelson were, along with Marge and Gower Champion, among the premier dance couples of Hollywood and Broadway.
For quite some time I’ve been meaning to thank the Patriot for running that intriguing picture (April 11) of Marsha Moode, executive director of the Downey Civic Light Opera, taking tickets at the door of the Downey Theater prior to a Sunday matinee.
Moode, a former beauty queen and stage and film actress, and the only Downey woman beside Karen Carpenter to possess star quality (though of a different sort), is dressed in an evening gown in which she looks perfectly comfortable. More than a self-referential glamour puss, she’s looking at one of her theater patrons directly in the eye and smiling in the way she had of making everyone feel happy and personally welcome at a DCLO performance, which consisted of a steady production schedule of the best musicals ever staged from the golden age of Broadway musicals, including works by Irving Berlin, Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Gershwin brothers.
What’s the connection here?
For much of the final decade of the DCLO’s existence, Miriam Nelson was choreographer for Moode and the DCLO, in which Nelson’s style, experience and brilliance seemed to make each show more dazzling and infectious than the one before. Mixing amateurs and pros, her dance numbers became more explosive, more confident and theatrical, full of the pizzazz of old Broadway at its most assured.
Long before its 2013 demise, a DCLO production was one of the few bright lights on what passes as Downey’s dismal cultural scene. Moode also arranged and hosted opening night parties in which part of the Embassy Suites’ ground floor was blocked off and city officials and business people mingled with cast members and dancers, alumnae from other DCLO productions, L.A. actor friends and even a few university theater professors.
Miriam Nelson would be there too, friendly and beaming, a genial part of the fun, even though she had to drive home afterward to Malibu.
So why do I mention all this?
Because it’s a reminder of what Downey has lost, and an indication of a city moving in the wrong direction. I can understand if local theater audiences, to whom the DCLO is already a distant memory, don’t remember Nelson; she worked behind the scenes.
But I’ll bet a hefty sum that no one on the city council, whose job it is to know what goes on in the city, knew anything about the luminary in their midst, or for that matter, the pleasure the DCLO brought audiences who drove in from as far away as Ventura. (Alex Saab would be the exception; but he, like the rest of the council members at the time, didn’t take in DCLO performances; they didn’t show up for the Downey Symphony performances either, unless they were getting an award.)
A city without a cultural life is a dead zone, and as I watch architectural atrocities like the KB project on Paramount and 5th hog the landscape as they metastasize in bulk, and lament the short-sightedness that created the semi-desolate Promenade—Downey’s last great shot at the stuff municipal dreams are made of—I see a once-exceptional place bailing on its future.
I’ve lived here through more Downey election cycles than I care to remember, and there are a few council members I’m happy to see gone for the harm they’ve done that lives after them. But as I’ve observed the more recent parade of candidates pass through public scrutiny, each trumpeting the same tune about supporting police and business, business and police (as if a robust society consisted of nothing else), I’m struck more and more by the intellectual mediocrity, the absence of thought and imagination, of knowledge of how a well-rounded city and its rich satisfactions work, that has characterized our leadership.
The council as a body needs to snap out of its slumber. There have been notable efforts by Saab and Rick Rodriguez to get out and around, to listen to what’s going on in people’s minds, to show a city presence. Sean Ashton has held a few meetings to hear what people have to say.
And the Downey arts community, such as it is, should be appalled at its own unresponsiveness to the gestures Saab has made both in meetings at City Hall, where the same 15 or 20 people showed up and offered little by way of a plan to promote their work; and at the Downey Theater, where he offered discounts and non-profit incentives to theater artists to make use of the space. Except for one or two whose sole purpose seemed to complain, the majority sat in passive silence. They wanted the city to do everything for them.
I can understand the city’s reluctance to work with this bunch. Still, it has to do more. Without a cultural life, any urban locale is condemned to poverty of mind and spirit, stripped of historic continuity and the forms of expression that connect place and moment with the mystery that surrounds us, unrewarding to the inner lives of the people who live in it, something future generations can’t wait to escape.
By cultural life I’m not just referring to visual and performing arts, literature and poetry. I’m referring to the physical landscape around us, both natural and architectural. Our political leaders have got to reverse the punishing trend of selling us out to real estate developers.
There are a number of Downey civic and fraternal organizations where people come together in hearty appreciation of living here, as in the recent tributes to Mary Stauffer and the celebration of the historic McDonald’s on Lakewood and Florence. But if you consider its leadership role, the city bungled the handling of the Downey Art Museum, the first in L.A. County, so that it could be destroyed by the senseless ire of one vindictive blowhard. Though the issue was complex, the city didn’t protect the DCLO from a management firm that said, in effect, our way or the highway; a firm, incidentally, that acts basically as a pricey booking agency and does little to fulfill the purpose of the Downey Civic Theater as an anchor of Downey cultural identity.
Downey needs a staff architect to help give it a look more definitive than mere branding. It needs to revive a knowledgeable arts commission consisting of energetic and conscientious figures like George Redfox of the Downey Conservancy, to help advise it in fields that are clearly beyond the city council’s area of expertise.
The city should offer low rent loft and industrial space to local and L.A. artists and thereby gain entry into one of the hottest art scenes currently in the world, with no sign of cooling down. It should erase a lingering embarrassment by restoring the Downey Art Museum, and with it, an old, unmistakable source of civic pride.
The same with the Downey Theater, which, in being the largest civic structure in Downey, has dimensions superior to any other mid-size theater in Los Angeles County. Instead of the one-and-done commercial and amateur presentations we have programmed now—or in addition to them--the theater should be reconceived as a real theater, with classic and contemporary plays and theatrical performances.
Its management could offer invitations to the best college and university talents in the region to come and perform; ditto in partnership groups like the L.A. Theatre Alliance and others to cross-fertilize a regional performing arts scene. It should offer daytime performance programs for kids, who could benefit from the knowledge of some of those visiting talents. Who doesn’t like kids? The theater should be buzzing full-time, instead of looming in empty silence most days and nights like an abandoned morgue.
Who hasn’t noticed the increased traffic, congestion, pollution and sheer noise that has characterized Downey life over the past decade or so? There isn’t much the city can do about that. But it can find new spots here and there to put in walled-off pocket parks, which offer restorative peace and tranquility of spirit to anyone looking to get away from it all, or just catch a breath.
All this and more could be discussed as an antidote to what we’re losing, and should be addressed to our current city council, and perhaps even more crucially, the new faces competing for city leadership.
I’m a transplanted New Yorker. I first discovered the impressive Downey Theater as a theater critic for the L.A. Times; and later as a Downey resident, first became interested in local politics more than a decade ago when I went to a packed meeting at the Downey Theater hosted by city staff, who wanted to hear public opinion on how to deal with the obnoxious spread of McMansions. I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff, and by the earnest intelligence and concern of the Downey residents there.
“This city is going places,” I thought.
Now I’m beginning to think I was wrong.